Cleaning Alaska’s Remote Beaches, One Piece of Debris at a Time

Big, white plastic bags called “super-sacks” line a beach on Montague Island in Prince William Sound. The sacks are filled with marine debris like fishing nets, water bottles and Styrofoam. This summer, the team from Gulf of Alaska Keeper has spent 50 days on Montague so far collecting the debris, as part of a multi-year effort.

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"Super-sacks" wait for pickup. Photo: Hanna Craig, Alaska Public Media.
Bags of debris await pickup on Montague Island. Photo: Hanna Craig, Alaska Public Media.

The trash that accumulates on the shoreline of Montague Island, from one day to another, is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s more where it came from, and it will keep coming back. It has been like this for decades.

“What you see on the beach is a fraction of what’s out there. Either being it floating on the surface or sunk on the bottom of the water,” Ryan Pallister says. Pallister has spent 10 years working for a nonprofit: Gulf of Alaska Keeper.

A helicopter lands on Montague Island in Prince William Sound. Photo: Hanna Craig, Alaska Public Media.
A helicopter lands on Montague Island in Prince William Sound. Photo: Hanna Craig, Alaska Public Media.

The “goAK” crew goes all the way down the shorelines of south central Alaska, from Kodiak to Kayak Island. Pallister says the weather can be extreme. The team also has to keep a close watch for brown bears. And then there’s the challenge of the work itself.

“Basically, it comes down to human muscle; I mean, we use chainsaws and knives… And the heli, of course; now that we have the heli we can use the heli to pull, and lift, and…but yeah, it comes down to men hour.”

The 10-person-crew receives help from volunteers like Hanako Yokota, who works with the Japan Environmental Action Network. Yokota has a very special duty: recognizing the marine debris from Japan that may be from the 2011 tsunami that swept millions of tons of debris into the ocean. She points at the mass of trash next to her:

“With this, I can never say that it is from Japan. I mean, it is from Japan, but I can never say if it is from the tsunami, because it doesn’t really state it is from the tsunami.”

However, Yokota can read Japanese and she’s able to recognize the logos and names some fishermen write on their buoys to distinguish them. Although she now lives in Vancouver, when Yokota visits Japan fishermen ask her to bring their buoys back, if she finds them.

“It will be very interesting if I actually get to take something back and return it.”

The marine debris that ends up in the beaches of Montague comes from remote places like Japan, but also from Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia, Yokota says.

“It doesn’t really matter where it comes from; we’ll just have to clean it up.”

“The more we collect and the more we remove, the more gets off this island and gets recycled.”

Crew member Scott Groves is standing next to a few super-sacks of trash and he seems satisfied: they have reached their goal of around 20 to 25 super-sacks a day. He writes the numbers down in his notebook.

“As far as numbers are concern, you kind of forget how much you actually do out here. Is like every day you still get your mind blown by how much garbage is actually on these beaches.”

Ryan Pallister says that after a decade cleaning this coast, he’s still surprised by the amount of marine debris.

“Out there, is dirty forever. And almost it’s hard to finish it in my lifetime but…more people would help, more resources.”

So why keep coming back to clean something that will be dirty tomorrow? Pallister has a simple answer:

“If your neighbors are throwing trash in your yard, just clean it up or say something to them…It’s kind of the same situation.”

Pallister believes a change in people’s behavior is needed to stop the contamination problem, but he’s not very optimistic about it. In the meantime, the helicopter will come down soon to collect the bags of trash and sling them onto a barge.